The MacGuffin

Two Weeks, Two Countries

Posted by Lauren Rugani on March 6, 2011

I’ve been in Switzerland for two weeks now and it’s amazing how much I’ve seen. I went on four more tours at CERN to learn about the various experiments and they were all incredibly cool.

Thursday I spent the entire morning the control center, where they (obviously) control the various components of the LHC. I learned how complex it really is to circulate a beam of protons around a circle 11,000 times a second! They have to control the exact position of the protons with magnets, otherwise the beam could stray off course and blow a hole right through the pipe. They also have to control the exact fraction of a second that they shoot new protons into the ring so that they are in step with the protons already there. There are dozens and dozens of screens on desks and on the walls that are constantly updating with information about all the parts of the accelerator. People there watch them closely for any sign of a problem so that they can either correct it right away, or “dump” the beam before it causes any serious damage.

In the afternoon I went to an experiment called ATRAP, where they take anti-protons and positrons (the anti-matter equivalent of the electron) and bring them together to form anti-hydrogen. This experiment was the inspiration behind Angels and Demons, where they steal vials of antimatter and try to blow up the Vatican. Unfortunately there are no glowing blobs of antimatter floating around, but the premise is the same – very powerful electromagnets control the position of the anti-hydrogen and can theoretically keep it there for days, weeks, months or years so long as the power supply isn’t cut. Once the scientists figure out how to trap enough of it (about 1000 atoms – nowhere near enough to cause any damage) they will shine lasers on it and measure the absorption spectrum (come on, think back to high school chemistry) to see if it looks like normal hydrogen. Depending on the answer, they will know a lot more about the state of the universe and why we are made up of matter and not antimatter.

Friday morning I tagged along with a high school tour, where we went to an area called SM-18 that houses spare accelerator parts and models of the accelerator. I had been there once before but the guide was really knowledgeable about the history of the accelerator and the functions of the various parts. He also had a great way of explaining the scale of things. For example: the protons travel so fast that if light left earth and hit another star 2 light years away, the proton beam leaving at exactly the same time would only arrive 2 seconds later (that’s like .9999999991 the speed of light). Also, did you know that the LHC is both the coldest AND hottest place not only on Earth, but in the universe? The cryogenics keep the accelerator pipes just a fraction above absolute zero, and when the protons collide inside the detectors they create energy more intense than in the center of the Sun. (That will be a question on Jeopardy some day, mark my words.)

Then we went to the computer center where they keep the servers that store all the data from the proton collisions and send it all over the world. This is also the building that showcases the computer used by Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web.

After lunch I went to another experiment on the LHC called ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment). It’s much smaller than ATLAS and CMS, the experiments I saw last week, but no less impressive. Instead of protons, ALICE studies the conditions created by colliding lead ions together (which are dozens of times heavier than protons). They create a substance called quark-gluon plasma, which are the particles that make up protons, and were thought to have existed for the first 400,000 years (short by the universe’s standards) after the Big Bang, until the universe expanded and cooled down enough for them to coalesce into protons and atoms.

I was completely exhausted after these two days, so Friday night I got to bed early to rest up for my day trip to Lyon on Saturday. Five of us met up at the train station around 7 am and took the two-hour ride to Lyon, which is the second largest city in France, after Paris. It helped that the day was gorgeous with blue skies and balmy temperatures, but the city was just beautiful. It was very French in every sense of the word. Traditional architecture, ornate and intricate details on everything, bistros and pastry shops everywhere. (The first thing we did was find a place to have coffee and croissants.) We walked to the Saone river (just west of the Rhone) and then to the old town — narrow cobblestone streets and centuries-old buildings with secret passages. We walked up a long and steep flight of stairs to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere, which is without a doubt one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life.

We took a long and relaxing lunch at one of the restaurants and had a very traditional Lyonnais meal. I had a Lyonnais salad, which is greens, bacon, croutons and a poached egg; blanquette du veau, or veal stew; and a caramel custard for dessert. Of course, we washed it down with a nice glass of Cotes du Rhone red wine.

After lunch we took the subway to a few other parts of the city, the shopping district, an old bohemian village and a park. We came full circle back to the place we had breakfast, and the streets were much more alive. Music was playing, the bars started opening, people were milling around and going to dinner. There was one street with carts of seafood set up outside restaurants with guys shucking oysters and selling fresh seafood. We left Lyon around 930 and got back to Geneva rather late, but the trip was well worth it. Definitely a place I’ll visit again.

Today I slept in for what felt like the first time since I got to Geneva, then rode into the city to look at more apartments. I found a place that I really like, is in an amazing part of town, AND is within my budget. Keep your fingers crossed for me that I’ll get it!

Turns out my blog is not so friendly to me uploading hundreds of pictures, so I put the full set from Lyon on Facebook, and then a smaller set of my favorite pictures here on Flickr.

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2 Responses to “Two Weeks, Two Countries”

  1. Janessa said

    Can we go here?!

    • Lauren Rugani said

      I would love to go back! It’s a little out of the way if we want to go to Italy, but I’ll look into it.

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